As patented political product Raila has hardly any equal

General Motors Kenya chief executive officer Bill Lay knows something or two about marketing and branded products. He could not help lifting his arms skywards as if to thank the Almighty on learning that Lang’ata MP Raila Odinga had bought a Hummer.

The publicity the otherwise ordinary purchase was given was more than any company would have asked for. According to a newspaper report, Mr Lay received a call from Mr Odinga when the new limousine developed a mechanical problem. The CEO arranged for the spares to be flown from abroad in two or so days. The vehicle is manufactured in US by General Motors, the country’s leading vehicle maker.

Mr Odinga is the most powerful political brand in this country. His association with a commercial product should, on the face of it, translate into good business. Yet even the most potent brands come with a downside. Mr Lay’s clincher was his follow-up observation that for those who subscribed to the Raila brand, there were as many who were repelled by it.

Either way, therefore, the Hummer getting branded Raila could go right or boomerang. So for Mr Lay it was a question of wait and see.

By a stroke of bad luck, the crash of Kenya Airways flight 507 has taken the spotlight away from one of the most important political events of the year — Mr Odinga’s launch of his presidential campaign at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. By the time this article was being written, there were no signs that the event would be cancelled or if, indeed, there were compelling reasons to do so. The preparation expenses which certainly are high had to be considered, not to mention the fact that there are said to be delegations from abroad who were already on the way.

What could change is if it turns out that the plane had more than a fair number of Kenyan passengers (as distinct from those in transit) and the communal mood demanded as a show of national mourning. Even without that, the accident has effectively dislodged every other event from the media headlines, which is what the Raila machine runs on and knows how to exploit.

As a patented political product, the Raila brand has no equal. Within ODM Kenya people who imagine they are his competitors will soon realise, if they have not done so already, that this was never the game plan from the very beginning. Apart from one or two presidential hopefuls who can cause some irritation to Mr Odinga’s momentum, they are, to use a notorious put-down he favours, inconsequential. But it is precisely this irresistible inevitability in a contest with minnows that has generated extremely powerful counter-reactions which, to Mr Odinga’s discredit, he often dismisses casually or otherwise fails to grasp.

It is not only former President Moi’s antipathy towards the prospective candidate, which I suspect has very little to do with the popular notion about settling scores of 2002. Former Vice-President Musalia Mudavadi’s reference to Ugandan strongman Idi Amin’s dictatorial tendencies could have been out of pique when he realised that somebody he might have banked on to anoint him the “compromise” candidate had other ideas. But the most curious thing is that just about the same view as Mr Mudavadi blurted out is shared by a disconcerting number of other Orange hopefuls who will, of course, swear that this is not the case.

The paradigm of victimisation has always been the compelling motor of the Odinga family’s political dominance in Nyanza.

The stories of “betrayal” under Kenyatta in the 1960s, under Moi (the unfulfilled Kanu-NDP promise) and now Kibaki (the memorandum of understanding), which runs as a thread through the Odinga family campaigns, has also had the effect of tightly welding the family to its regional constituency.

But this time it will be different. Mr Odinga is going for the presidency with nothing pulling him down on account that he is supporting, or must support, somebody else like he did in 2002. If he wins it will be his own accomplishment and nobody else’s. And if he loses it will be by his own missteps.

Anybody who thinks Mr Odinga is not a national, as opposed to regional, candidate is not living in this country. The tag of “unelectability” has always been an ethnicised construct which is neither here nor there.

With him, the brand complication is not about where he comes from but who he is.


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